Tracking the Zombie Diaspora

Tracking the Zombie Diaspora: From Sub-human to Post-human

First published in Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil edited by Paul Yoder and Peter Mario Kreuter, May 2004


The zombie is a particularly resilient and chimerical figure in the history of popular monsters. An exemplary boundary figure originating in Haitian folklore, the legendary zombie is a human being whose soul has been stolen after death by a sorcerer who has then brought them back to life. From the early Hollywood representations of zombies as soul-less somnambulists governed by the will of an evil magician, through the plagues of insatiable, cannibal zombies of the 1970’s, to the contemporary zombies that populate the debates of cognitive science, the zombie figure has exercised a peculiar hold of the Western popular and scientific imagination for two hundred years. At stake in each variety of zombie is a complex of issues involving the cultural demonization of the African cultural diaspora in the Americas; debates about the nature of human consciousness and the existence of the soul; the distinction between the living and the dead; and fears about the exercise of behavioral influence at a distance. This paper will track the ‘migration’ of the zombie as it passes from one cultural and discursive context to the next, tracing the behavioral and functional mutations which accompany its passage.

Key Words

Zombie, Diaspora, Contagion, Mimesis, Identity, Representation, Supernatural/Natural, Consciousness, Soul

1.    Diaspora as Contagion and the Work of Zombies

‘Man is death living a human life’ – Alexander Kojéve

The diaspora of my title is a reference to Barbara Browning’s book Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture which has strongly influenced my approach to the Zombie figure. Browning’s book analyses representations of the African cultural diaspora in the New World in terms of metaphors of disease, contagion and epidemiology. This epidemiological model is strongly associated, in turn, with the musical aspects of African culture which have been imagined as particularly effective vectors of its virulent diffusion. Although the epidemiological metaphor often expresses implicitly racist and xenophobic configurations of the African diaspora there are significant anti-reactionary versions it, most famously Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo which traces the history of the Jes Grew virus from Africa to the United States. Browning’s book, written in a post AIDS era, explores the discursive representations of HIV as being of African origin, re-mobilising deep historical prejudices regarding the morality and nature of African culture in the West. Haiti is particularly important in this context as it is often imagined as an Africa within the Americas, and as such has been the object of the most reactionary and hysterical misrepresentations.

The use of the term diaspora is also intended to suggest notions of borders and border crossings. One of the common theoretical formulations of the monstrous is that which upsets categorical boundaries and binary distinctions. Noel Carroll has described this quality of the monstrous as ‘categorical interstitiality’1, a notion indebted to Mary Douglas’ general formulation of chaos-bringing cultural impurity (or ‘dirt’) as ‘matter out of place’2. The zombie, as cadaverous upsetter of the boundary between the living and the dead, is an exemplary figure of this kind. Wherever the zombie is found, from traditional Haitian folklore to the contemporary philosophy of consciousness, it is never in its proper place.

The introduction to Browning’s book, entitled “Haiti is Here/Haiti is not Here” evokes  a Haiti existing in concrete geographical fact (an historically marginalised and brutally impoverished island republic in the Caribbean) but is also intended to suggest that the extreme inequality gradient that exists between Haiti and its wealthy neighbours is increasingly experienced by communities living inside the first world. Browning reclaims the image-idea of the epidemic African diaspora to critique the socio-economic inequalities which underlie its migrations. Like the zombie ‘itself’, Haiti is not only there, it is also literally and metaphorically here too.

The title  – “Haiti is Here/Haiti is not Here” – also suggests the peculiar blending of popular fantasy and social fact that characterises many representations of Haiti in western culture. The Haiti of which Browning writes is simultaneously a ‘real’ Haiti as it exists in actuality, and an imaginary or mythical Haiti which exists in the narratives and discourses that have represented it. These two Haiti’s are inseparable for Browning’s argument, asserting as she does, that Haiti has been, and continues to be, shaped in dramatic and very real ways by the (mis)representations that are made of it, particularly those which circulate in the powerful nations which have the greatest ideological investment in Haiti’s past, present and future.

Even in the most seemingly sober-minded of academic contexts the references to the real Haiti flow seamlessly into its most parodic, sinister and exotic misrepresentations. A brilliant example of this tendency, and one which has great pertinence for today’s presentation, is given in the first chapter of Infectious Rhythm.  In 1986 an article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by a Dr. William R. Greenfield entitled “Night of the Living Dead II: Slow Virus Encephalopathies and AIDS: Do Necromantic Zombiists Transmit HTLV/LAV During Voodooistic Rituals” 3 (The title is a reference to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film which began a new phase of cannibal-zombie movies in the 1970’s). The Zombie here is simultaneously assumed to be an actual person living and dying (and living again) in a real Haiti and a mythical and fantastic figure familiar from popular horror cinema in the West.  In short the traditional Haitian zombie is woven seamlessly into its postmodern cinematic misrepresentation.

I am particularly drawn the to conceptual ambiguity of the zombie as a monstrous entity which cannot be reduced to either a purely phantasmatic or a purely physical existence. Noel Carroll defines the monster as ‘any being not believed to exist now according to contemporary science’.4 The zombie is extremely ambiguous in this regard too. In contemporary Haitian society there are living human beings who are considered to be authentic zombies by the rural populations in whose milieu they ‘live’. There are be debates about how these people became zombies, whether they are victims of sorcery and have in fact been raised from the dead, or alternatively, whether they are in fact people with severe mental disabilities who have lost their home communities and family identities. Scientific, medical and ethnographic opinion has still not arrived at a consensus as to the real causes of ‘zombiedom’ in Haiti.

The zombie also raises important practical and theoretical questions about the nature of identity and representation, questions very relevant for the cultural politics of Haiti in general. A zombie cannot know and say that it is a zombie. As such it is destined to only ever be represented by others from the outside. This quality makes the zombie an exemplary figure for raising questions about the self-conscious, rational-autonomous individual that is the cornerstone of Enlightenment ideals of social democracy. The zombie is also fundamentally associated with the terrible legacy of slavery, which still haunts the cultural memory of Haiti, a revenant of the subhuman state to which colonialism can reduce a ‘living’ human being. Such qualities make the zombie work particularly well for the horror genre in its various forms, for cultural theory, consciousness studies and other varieties of philosophical-conceptual speculation but far less so for a progressive representation of Haiti’s potential for socio-political independence and autonomy.

So taking my example from Browning I will risk playing with the metaphor of diasporic contagion despite its explicitly (but not exclusively) racist history in order to trace the ‘disease vector’ of the zombie ‘plague’ as it passes through different cultural, historical and discursive contexts. In the process I will comment on the changing behavioural and phenomenological characteristics of the zombie as it migrates from one discursive context to another.

Perhaps the most exemplary instance of the complex of issues surrounding the distinction between actual-physical Haitian and imaginary-cinematic zombies is Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), a fairly sober, literary/ethnobotanical account of zombie making practices in Haiti, which was made into a sensationalist Hollywood horror film by Wes Craven two years later. Davis was employed by a US drug corporation to discover if there was any material truth to accounts of the legendary voodoo powder that could create temporary death-like symptoms in its victims. Accounts of such a powder date back to the turn of the last century. Hesketh Prichard, in his exemplary racist account of Haitian society reported that papaloi (male vodou priests) were capable of taking away one’s reason at will and, with the use of special potions, capable of producing ‘a sleep which is death’s twin-brother’5. Davis concluded convincingly that such a powder does in fact exist and that it contains a powerful neurotoxin derived from pufferfish venom. And this powder is used in zombifying rituals by sorcerers in Haiti who claim to be able to bring people back from the dead.

Wes Craven’s movie is a particularly pertinent example of the complex representation of zombies I am discussing today. It is a return to the ‘Classical’ zombie movies of the 1930’s and 40’s which represented the zombie as an explicitly Caribbean cultural phenomenon. In so doing it plays out a similar game of xenophobic/xenonphilic misrepresentations of Haiti and its culture that the earlier films played out Martinique and St.Vincent. As in Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1942) a central theme of The Serpent and the Rainbow concerns the causal explanation of zombiedom: does it have supernatural/magical causes or natural/rational ones? The black, male ‘African’ zombie of I walked finds its uncanny reflection in the white, female ‘European’ somnambulist-hysteric around whose illness the narrative is structured. Both appear to be mysteriously controlled by an outside agency which governs their behaviour and both are utterly unresponsive to ’normal’ everyday forms of communication. Early in the narrative the husband of the catatonic somnambulist insists that the new nurse thinks of his wife as a ‘mental case’ and does not succumb to the ‘contagious superstition’ of the natives. According to the doctor who is employed to treat her, the condition was caused by a ‘tropical fever’ that burned out part of her spinal column. A central trope of the plot hinges on the contested explanations for the ‘white’ zombie’s condition. Ultimately the film rejects the western medical explanation of ‘hysterical’ somnambulistic trance and sides with the ‘hocus pocus’ voodoo option.

The Serpent and the Rainbow manages to reach a compromise solution regarding the cause of zombiedom: it is caused on the physiological level by a chemical agent (which keeps Biocorp happy) and this effect is supplemented on the psychological-cultural level by a belief in the voodoo religion, “a net of magic beyond anything we know” as Dr. Allen’s narration describes it. In short, only people who believe in voodoo can become zombies. But what does it mean for a Western audience to believe in voodoo? If the film has convinced its audience of voodoo’s genuine effects then they too might be prone to them. What is interesting is that the zombie is now doubly spectralized: accounts of the ‘real’ zombie (and by inference, the ‘real’ Haiti) elide with its phantasmatic and legendary manifestations in Haitian folklore and Western popular culture. In this complex context zombiedom is assumed to be ‘at once’ a spectral, imaginary and physical mode of existence. Haiti and its zombie have now passed materially beyond their temporal and territorial limits to haunt the dreams of those ‘living’ in distant, safer and more ‘reasonable’ lands. Mass media constitute a global and a-temporal sphere in which the spirit of the zombie now wanders endlessly.

2.   The Three Varieties of Zombie

In this paper I will be addressing three varieties of zombie that appear in three broadly distinct but overlapping discourses: the Traditional Haitian Zombie, the Cinematic Zombie and the Philosophical Zombie.

The Traditional Haitian Zombie (or zonbi) is a legendary figure derived from the cultural and folkloric traditions of the Dahomian people of West Africa who were taken to Haiti as slaves over several centuries. In this tradition the zonbi is a deceased person who has been brought back to life by the work of an evil sorcerer (a bokor). The word zonbi, derived from the Fon language of West Africa, has two related but distinct meanings: i) the spirit of a dead person that travels at night to visit the living and ii) the living corpse of a dead person that has been reanimated by sorcery. The traditional Haitian zonbi is therefore a highly dualistic figure which has both a phantasmatic and a physical form. In terms of the fascination of the western scientific imagination it has been the zonbi’s physical and material manifestation that has provoked the greatest speculation. If the zonbi were reducible to collective superstition, like phantoms in general, it would be far easier to lay to rest. But it is the zombie’s persistent corporeality that keeps it coming back, as it were.

It is therefore the second meaning of zonbi that has come to dominate the Western meaning of the word. But I believe that what makes the zombie such an exemplary boundary figure is this ability to manifest as a both physical-material entity (and as such a proper object of scientific and medical observation) and imaginary-phantasmatic entity (more properly the object of philosophical speculation and psychological-cultural interpretation). It is perhaps because of this peculiarly dualistic and boundary blurring nature of zombie that it can be made to work for in a variety of discursive contexts and in support of quite contradictory ideological positions. But to whatever ends the zombie is put, it only ever works for something other than itself.

The traditional Haitian zombie begins its literary debut in accounts of Haiti made by travel writers in the years after its independence from colonial rule in 1791. In this context it can be read as exemplary post-colonial figure. Here the zombie is a monstrous being used to illustrate the evil, superstitious and barbaric practices and beliefs of the uncivilized Haitian peasants and their leaders6.  By the 1920’s more rigorous and detailed accounts of the zonbi, in myth and in fact, derived from the Haitian peasants themselves, enter into the ethnographic literature of Haiti and Vodou. These accounts are an explicit attempt to set the facts straight about the nature of the Haitian zombie to counter the negative purposes to which it was being made to work.

The second variety is the Cinematic Zombie, familiar from popular horror films, which makes its big screen debut in the 1930’s. The first ‘Classical’ version of the Cinematic zombie is modelled on sensationalist literary accounts of the traditional Haitian zonbi written during the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 (such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929)). During their occupation the US forces and the Catholic Church carried out a number of anti-superstition campaigns in an attempt to eradicate the practice of Vodou from the island (such campaigns had been waged by the catholic church from the 1860’s onwards) The figure of ‘Classical’ Cinematic Zombie, like the literature from which it derives, can be seen as the extension of this ideological campaign to the US home-front. In this sense the zombie is a deeply paradoxical figure as it is simultaneously assumed to be the real product of effective magic and the immaterial fantasy of primitive superstition, pointing to deep-seated anxieties on the part of Haiti’s would-be colonial rulers about the effectiveness of vodou sorcery.

In this context the zombie figure is closely associated with the somnambulist and shares many of its characteristics. Thus the evil bokor becomes associated with the sinister mesmerist. Significantly discourses on the social effects of cinema have been explicitly associated with the phenomena of mesmerism. In this context the notion of mimetic behaviours on the part of mass audiences was derived from the apparent suggestibility of somnambulistic hysterics. That humans can be made to act en masse according to mediated suggestion has shaped the historical and political development of cinema since its beginnings in the late 19th century, coinciding precisely with the advent of scientific psychopathology 7.

That it is in horrific cinematic form that the zombie emerges, reinstates the spectral nature of this imaginary-contagious threat. Cinema as a medium causes a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between consciousness and the soul and between life, animation, death and after-life8.  Cinema gives a new intermediate form of spectral materiality to the figure of the zombie  – a second form of living-death – and therefore introduces new levels of ontological and ideological complexity to this already highly contested figure.

Despite being based on stereotypical and xenophobic accounts of Haitian society and culture the ‘Classical’ Cinematic Zombie shares many of the characteristics of its Traditional Haitian, ‘flesh and blood’ predecessor. During the late 60’s and early 70’s however the Cinematic Zombie undergoes a shocking and rapid mutation, acquiring newfound virulent and cannibalistic characteristics.  The films of this period introduce the theme of a zombie plague which generates an apocalyptic and hyper-visceral epidemic. The ‘Postmodern’ Cinematic Zombie (as Steven Shaviro calls it in The Cinematic Body) is a distinctly new and remarkably resilient variety of zombie which is perhaps most representative of its popular public image.

The Postmodern Cinematic Zombie shares fundamental characteristics with its predecessors. It is a ‘living-dead’ being that has been brought back to life by uncertain causes and/or means. Since the Postmodern Cinematic Zombie is newly cannibalistic, zombiedom in this context is usually be caused by the incurable contaminating bite of the zombie. But the principle cause of the zombie plague is generally left open. In some instances – such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (1979) – the plague does derive from somewhere in the Caribbean, a product of the mixing between western medical experiments and voodoo practices. But in the examples of Romero (and more recently Jack Snyder) the voodoo origins of the zombie are hardly present. In this sense the Postmodern Cinematic Zombie is less explicitly implicated in the cultural vilification of Haiti. Of course, the cultural history of the figure of the cannibal is deeply implicated in the ideological production of the Caribbean as a land of ‘savages’. Themes of ‘cannibalism’ and ‘ritual human sacrifice’ constitute the main thrust of Spencer St John’s Eurocentric condemnation of the Haitian society and culture in Hayti or the Black Republic (1884) for instance. But ubiquitous jungle drums don’t accompany the arrival of the new cinematic  zombie. This is a plague of Old Testament origins: ‘When there is no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth’.

According to Shaviro the cannibalistic mutation of the zombie functions as an explicit critique of ‘life’ in late capitalist societies rather than an implicit critique of non-western cultural practices (Haitian or otherwise). The cannibal-zombie is a figure for a hyper-consumerist society conceived from a globally integrated economic perspective. The excessively consumptive and unthinking character of the postmodern cannibal-zombie is thus both mimetic and allegorical of life in postmodern consumer societies, ‘marking the rebellion of death against capitalist appropriation’.9 As such it can be read as a base-materialist attack on ideals of collective and individual identity/difference upon which the contemporary liberal-democratic politics of representation is based. Shaviro points to the ways in which the postmodern zombie movie ultimately questions the possibility of effective democratic politics in the face of a ubiquitous global threat to all human life.  In this sense – and also to the extent that it raises metaphysical and ethical questions about what is truly human and what distinguishes between  ‘living’ human life and ‘dead’ human life – the postmodern cannibal-zombie works temporarily like it’s authentic Haitian relatives.  But it does so in an excessively violent, virulent and collective  manner. And ultimately these zombies aren’t working for any one or any thing, except perhaps for the end of all ‘living’ humans in the traditional sense. Some job!

And so to the Philosophical Zombie, an imaginary figure used in thought experiments to test arguments about the essential nature of human consciousness.

The annual conferences at Center for Consciousness Studies at University of Arizona in Tucson regularly address the so-called ‘Zombie Problem’. These debates have particular pertinence for the development of artificial intelligence and artificial life. In this context the Philosophical zombie is most strongly associated with David Chalmers, whose book The Conscious Mind (1996) popularized the figure for consciousness studies. Chalmers takes his cue however from Robert Kirk who introduced the Zombie to consciousness studies in an article in Mind magazine in 1974. It is more than likely that Kirk chose this title due to the popular influence of the Postmodern Cinematic Zombie which was marauding cinema audiences at the time. It is an unusual choice of word considering its function. In philosophical terms the figure of the ‘mechanical man’ was already serving a similar hypothetical purposes for consciousness studies as the newly named zombie which replaced it. However in colloquial terms the word zombie had come to signify a person who seemed to be a living human being but for whom there was ‘nothing going on inside’, a person with ‘zero personality’ and one who had become ‘robotized’ by the monotony of life contemporary capitalist societies. (This might be called The Stepford Wives scenario). In this sense the precursor of the philosophical zombie is the obedient android, an imaginary human copy which corresponds more closely to the replicants and simulants that populate futurological science-fiction narratives than to its Traditional and Cinematic Zombie relatives.

So the Philosophical Zombie shares few of the cultural and behavioural characteristics of its predecessors. In fact it has precisely no features that would distinguish it from a normal, living human being other than its hypothetical lack of sentient consciousness. In this regard it is closest to the Traditional Haitian Zombie except it can say it is not a zombie. The work of the Philosophical Zombie is to test if we can prove with any degree of certainty that a perfect physical copy of a human being – which acts and behaves exactly like one  – could be proven to either have or lack ‘consciousness’.

The figures of the ‘actual’ traditional zombie and the ‘imaginary’ replicant-zombie constitute two poles of the theoretical-conceptual territory that the monstrous figure of the zombie helps us to explore. Although I have not been able to argue the case here I believe that the zombie figure can also help us explore the historical evolution of the ideas of soul, psyche and consciousness, and their implication for contemporary metaphysics and human ethics.

What is at stake in the various discourses in which the Zombie figures are questions of differentiation: differentiation between the living and the dead; between objects of popular superstition and beings which actually exist; between the real person and his/her soulless double; between person whose abnormality is the consequence of pathological causes and the person who is the victim of sorcery; and between the authentic, conscious human being and its perfect, artificial simulation. As such the zombie is an fantastically useful figure for epistemological, philosophical and metaphysical speculation. But as we know, the zombie also raises important historical, political and global questions about who works for who and under what conditions?


1. Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (London/New York: Routledge, 1990), 27.
2. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).
3. Barbara Browning,  Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture  (London/New York: Routledge, 1998), 27.
4. Carroll, 27.
5. Spencer St. John,  Hayti or the Black Republic (London: Smith, Elder & Co.), 1884.
6. Hesketh Prichard, Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and about Hayti (Westminster: Westminster Press, 1900).
7. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
8. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Jalal Toufic, (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, New York: Station Hill, 1993.
9. Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) .84


Browning, Barbara, Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture, London/New York: Routledge, 1998.
Carroll, Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, London/New York: Routledge, 1990.
Chalmers, David, The Conscious Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Davis, Wade, Passage of Darkness:  The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Davis, Wade, The Serpent and the Rainbow, New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1985.
Deren, Maya, Divine Horsemen:  The Living Gods of Haiti, New York: McPherson, 1970.
Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
Farmer, Paul, The Uses of Haiti, Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1994
Farmer, Paul, Aids and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, California: University of California Press, 1992.
Hurston, Zora Neal, Tell My Horse: Voodoo Life in Haiti and Jamaica, New York: Perennial Books, 1990.
Kittler, Friedrich, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Metraux, Alfred, Voodoo in Haiti, New York: Schocken Books, 1972.
Prichard, Hesketh, Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and about Hayti, Westminster: Westminster Press, 1900.
Reed, Ishmael, Mumbo Jumbo, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Seabrook, William, The Magic Island, New York: The Literary Guild of America, 1929.
Shaviro, Steven, The Cinematic Body, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
St. John, Spencer, Hayti or the Black Republic, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1884.
Toufic, Jalal, (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, New York: Station Hill, 1993.


Victor Halperin, White Zombie, 1932.
Jacques Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie, 1943.
Wes Craven, The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1987.
Lucio Fulci , Zombi, 1979.
George A Romero, Night of the Living Dead, 1968.
George A Romero, Dawn of the Dead, 1978.
George A Romero, Day of the Dead, 1985.
Zack Snyder, Dawn of the Dead, 2004.

8 Replies to “Tracking the Zombie Diaspora”

    1. Hi Kristina, sorry for taking so long to reply. Guess this slipped me by. Just noticed your comment as I was re-editing. Thanks for the link. Very interesting and pertinent.

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